How to Map a Bioregion


Welcome! The goal of this worksheet is to provide an easy and simple way to help people map their bioregion. Bioregions have a political, economic, cultural, and spatial territory, defined through natural boundaries and borders, and the biological communities living there.

Rather than being shaped and defined, bioregions emerge from blending many layers of information together and using this information to create more coherent frameworks for stewardship, management, planning, and governance.

Below are some simple steps and layers that might be useful. We recommend that you start by defining the area you want to map, the layers you are going to use (starting from the hard lines, working your way down through the soft), and finishing with human cultures and geography. And lastly, to map connections, and work by front-line communities to guide activities, recommendations, and ways of living. 

Bioregions are the natural countries of the planets, containing within them many nations, communities, and ecosystems.

They are important because nature acts on the scale of watersheds and bioregions. Rather than just one layer, or set of lines on a map, bioregions emerge from many layers of information coming together and can be used to create cohesive frameworks of stewardship that are set within the many contexts of a place.

While many maps are bioregional maps, not all bioregional maps are bioregions. A bioregion is smaller than a continent but larger than a region or watershed. They should be large enough to be self-reliant, and share interconnected physical geography and inhabitant cultures.

The ultimate purpose of defining bioregions is to create ecological nations and citizen governments that can use these shared frameworks to create regenerative cultures and economies, and ways of governing that better represent people, places, and inhabitants.

To map a bioregion, we use 

  1. Geology / Plate Tectonics as our base maps. What are the hard lines? The subduction zones, underwater hydrology, Bioregions are defined through geology. They have hard, jagged lines. They are tectonic, faultlines, geology and whose shapes help conform the ecoregions and biotic life within them. We use bioregions as our frameworks for administrative units because ultimately, nature acts bioregionally. We cannot have any conversation about water, forest fires, drought, salmon recovery or other issues, without involving an entire watershed, and an entire bioregion.
  2. For internal boundaries we use ecoregions, and groupings of ecoregions if it makes sense to, defined through flora, fauna, topology, rainfall, history (indigenous cultures, histories, language groups – and settler culture, histories, dialects, historical regions etc), agriculture, energy production, urban / rural settings, roads, forests / land use. economic connections, sports, megaregions / intra economic connection – can all play into it.
  3. Lastly, we can include human inhabitation, and lines as they exist.

Bioregions are similar, but different from ecoregions, in that while being defined by natural borders and features, inhabitant cultures, and especially humans also impact their scale and definition. 

Steps for letting a bioregion emerge: 

  1. Find yourself! Where do you call home? What watersheds are you a part of? 
  2. Trace your watersheds, all the way back to their source. Then look… are there other factors, ecological systems, human cultures, economies or connections that extend into other watersheds? This may include natural disasters, where food is grown, First Nations, where our electricity comes from, and other things you deem important. 
  3. Rinse and repeat. When you can grow no larger – where those connections stop really making sense – is where you’ve hit your limits of a “bioregion”. 

Bioregions are the natural countries of the planet, containing within them many nestled nations, ecosystems, and communities. Despite this diversity, they are brought together, because we share connections of the physical place, and if we want to create holistic systems for stewardship – then all of these areas must be included in the conversation. 

  1. A bioregion is a land and water territory whose limits are defined by the natural realities of a place, the largest geographical limits of human communities and biological systems rather than by arbitrary political boundaries.
  2. Such an area must be large enough to be able to be self-reliant and able to maintain the integrity of its biological communities, habitats, and ecosystems.
  3. Watersheds and Drainage Basins are the building blocks of a bioregion. Because of biological communities and cultures, bioregions may extend “across” watersheds – but you will never divide them.
  4. People Matter. Ultimately it is up to the people and inhabitants of a bioregion to determine what layers best represent and connect their communities together, and from those their way of life and living. People can and do often fundamentally change their natural environments. Often, whether they realize it or not, bioregions provide the basis for inhabitant cultures, identities that stem from the place, and that help determine or shape these boundaries.

Thinking about a Name

  • Name & Symbols: What is the name of the bioregion being mapped? If unsure, are there any good names for the region that are generally used? How about a geologic term for the whole region? How about First Nation or Indigenous names for the area already in use? What are some distinct natural features or creatures that help define the distinct bioregion?

External Boundaries & Internal Boundaries

Hopefully using this sheet, coherent natural and cultural boundaries will emerge which will help provide a bioregional framework for the area. Bioregional maps are living documents. They change over time and are created using many layers together.

As a general rule though – bioregions tend to start at the jagged, hard lines found in nature, while internal boundaries may be more “fuzzy and soft”. From these, you may need to synthesize information from many layers to see what makes sense for different types of stewardship. 

Potential Layers

Together, layers of information, physical, biological, ecological, cultural, economic, and political, all come together to help form what a bioregion is all about. These layers create a ‘bioregional atlas’. 

“The Hard Lines”

  • Hydrology
    • Drainage Basins
    • Watersheds
    • Water Tables
  • Geology: 
  • Climatology
    • Weather Patterns / Wind Maps 
    • Climate Types
    • Ocean Currents
    • Water Precipitation
  • Satellite Pictures in Day / in Night

“The Soft Lines”

  • Ecology
    • Ecosystems
    • Ecoregions
    • Plants, Trees, Animals
    • Microbes / living matter
    • Organic materials and matters

“The Cultural Lens”

  • Indigenous Boundaries
    • Place Appropriate / Indigenous and Traditional Ways of Living / Technologies
    • Place Appropriate / Native Foods & Agriculture, Plants (and Ecosystems)
    • Indigenous History and Culture
  • Colonial History and Culture
  • Language groups pre-colonial and post-colonial and Cultural Distinctions and Uniquenesses

Human Geography:

  • Agriculture – Types, Eating Habits, Where does food come from?
  • Energy Production
  • Water and Waste Streams
  • Disaster Preparedness & Resilience Networks
  • Megaregions
  • Transportation Connections
  • Economic Connections
  • Metro-Regions and Cities
  • How does money travel/connect
  • Communities & Identities
  • Material Culture: Clothing, Fashion, Tools
  • Regional Food, Drink, Music, Sports

Altered Landscapes

  • Changes to hydrology, ecosystems, or natural environments affect all inhabitants downstream or in a larger surrounding area.


Scales of Bioregional Mapping.

  1. Planet – Earth
  2. Continent – Defined through the continental crust. Antartica, North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia.
  3. Bioregion – Natural countries of the planet. They are defined by 1) starting with the geology + tectonics – and then 2) the systems that emerge from hydrology and rainfall, i.e. watersheds. Soil types. 3) Biotic flora, fauna. Human inhabitation and culture, and how they have altered their lives in. 
  4. Biological Provinces – Shared regions of culture, flora, and fauna that stem across more than a single ecoregion. Food sheds, fiber sheds, fire sheds. Floodplains are all examples.
  5. Ecoregions – Shared watersheds of a drainage area with similar types of flora and fauna.
  6. Watershed Municipalities – Watershed districts within an Ecoregion, either individually, or combined make up various cities and other major features within ecoregions.
  7. Neighborhood / Community – exists within city or watershed municipalities.
  8. Home.

Creating a “Bioregional Map”

Bioregional maps are based on bioregional mapping, a form of bare-foot cartography that empowers every person and community to map what is important to them. 

It should be important to note, that while every map of a bioregion is a bioregional map, not every bioregional map is of a bioregion. 

Bioregional maps differ from traditional cartographic documents in several ways:

  • The maps are made in the community by community members. The visual language of mapping is relearned and becomes as important as speech or reading as a tool of communication. Maps made by governments or business interests will describe the world from their perspective only. Bioregional maps allow a community to describe itself from its own perspective.
  • The maps combine scientific and traditional knowledge, with each type of information given equal respect and representation. Bioregional maps can only be made if a community assembles both a library of scientific reports and a record of local knowledge, such as recordings, videos, essays, and ethnographic surveys.
  • Maps are made that equitably depict biophysical and cultural information. Traditional planning maps are reasonably good at showing information about the physical environment. Bioregional maps also add information and stories about the people who inhabit the land. Spatial information shows the location of things or events on the land, and descriptive information tells stories about what happened in a particular location. The map tells a story, in both written and visual formats.
  • The maps are living documents, changed or created as new information is collected. As the bioregional maps are presented to community members, government agencies, business interests, and the general public, many new sources of information will be revealed. Because the maps are made in the community they can be revised simply and in a short period of time.
  • Bioregional mapping is consistent with indigenous mapping and worldview. It can be employed as a means of empowerment, resistance, and assertion of alternative perceptions of power. It can also bridge with contemporary Western planning tools and GIS technologies.

Bioregional maps can be made in three ways.

  • They can be made by hand using simple and inexpensive tools.
  • They can be made using digital software.
  • They can be made using GIS (geographic information system) software. 

A base map is created, with a custom-made title block, north arrow, and linear scale. This is a time to have some fun. The design of the base map is totally up to the community. The map can have a decorative border, a north arrow that uses an animal or other totem symbol and can be otherwise customized to represent community identity.

The community can ask itself – what are important themes, stories, or messages they want to communicate? What are plants, animals, or creatures that make the area special? What are things happening that are negatively or positively impacting the quality of life in the area? A simple place to start can even be starting with the necessities of modern life, that may help people better connect with their place of living – such as where does the water come from? or the trash go? Who were the original inhabitants of an area… and what rivers, or streams do we live in? What are important stories or histories that are at risk of being erased, or whose voices they want to amplify?

Scientific and local information is then collected, read, and summarised for inclusion on a series of biophysical or cultural maps. Biophysical maps include geology, soils, hydrology, physiography, flora, fauna, and various levels of ecosystem association. Cultural maps include tradition use, colonization, land ownership patterns, education levels, income levels, and administrative boundaries. Bioregional maps have been made on nearly 100 topics. It is up to a community to decide how it will best describe itself.

Information is then placed on each map image in two ways. Where things are located or where events occurred – spatial information – is shown. Second, descriptive information, the “story” of a particular occurrence or location, is told in written or graphic form. By tying spatial and descriptive information together, the map reader saves the time of having to read often technical reports to know what story a map is telling. A third and compelling element can be the passage of time. How do things change with the seasons?

Once the bioregional map atlas is completed it becomes the common foundation of knowledge from which planning scenarios can be prepared, and decisions ultimately made. Complex information that is otherwise difficult to present is clearly depicted. The community learns about itself in the process of making decisions about its future. As information is collected – communities can also create bioregional atlases that communicate many different layers.  

Bioregional scales can be used as a framework to measure the success and failure of sustainability and carbon neutrality. How much a bioregion can store, recycle, mitigate, and set natural limits for growth; meet the habitat requirements of keystone and indicator species; including human communities and the development of place-appropriate technologies and ways of living.

Additional Notes:

  • Bioregional maps remove arbitrary political boundaries. This can be a layer, but should not be a base map or layer.
  • The name of the bioregion should be an “endonym” which means the name for a place, site or location in the language of the people who live there. It should be representative of the whole region, not one particular point, or place or people.
  • If you’re interested in generating a bioregional flag – simply create a flag that depicts a direct representation of the landscape, with an icon that helps represent the bioregion or what it represents. This lets the cultural human elements be adaptable for different causes and communities, and the colors to be adaptable for different subregions and geographic representations & color branding.

Some defining features of bioregional maps:

  • Every person is an expert, and has something valuable to contribute, to document to share. This can include narratives, histories, stories, things people find special, or knowledge relating to place. Bioregional maps are generally created or defined by communities living within or affected by the topic of the map.
  • Temporal. Bioregional maps often include time. How a place changes or is different in each season,  or from one year to the next. How animals, glaciers or fish migrate or move. In addition it can map past, present and future – and create roadmaps to societies or things we want to build.
  • Bioregional maps can use a wide array of methods to convey information, including song, dance, stories, sign languages, music, social mapping, cognitive mapping, and many other means that individuals feel best able to represent information.
  • Many indigenous forms of mapping are inherently bioregional forms of mapping. This includes family and clan relationships, traditional territories and boundaries, relational maps such as to bodies of water, stars and sky.
  • As a rule, if you see straight lines on a map, whether it is dividing a continent (Africa, Australia etc.), a community (US political districts, gerrymandering), roads (Google Maps) it is not a bioregional map.

Bioregional maps use ‘layers’ that together can better represent a place. These can include:

  • Physical: Geology, tectonics, subduction zones, mountains, peaks, ridges, valleys, rainfall, wind patterns, and how they change over time.
  • Biotic: Plants, animals, soils. Growing conditions. How animals and plant nations within an area interrelate, and how they change over time.
  • Human: Lessons of living in place, indigenous ways of living and knowledge. Culture, economy, politics. agriculture, energy. History, the context and understanding of past and present, and visions for the future that can serve as roadmaps for how we can get to the future.

When possible we set the biotic and temporal elements (x axis) within the physical reality of place (y axis) and document how it flows with the passing of time (z axis).

Bioregional maps are not made from one layer of information, but rather atlases in which layer upon layer has been added, from which shapes and deeper lessons emerge.